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Buckle up: Cougars hosting Spartans Friday night

By DAVID GRAVELY

editor@southwesttimes.com

 

It’s going to be different in a lot of ways, but one thing will not change … it’s Salem week for the Pulaski County Cougar football team.

 

The Cougars and Spartans have enjoyed a long rivalry. Salem is one of the few schools that hold an overall advantage in their series with Pulaski County. The Cougars have 19 wins and the Spartans have 29 wins. The Cougars also have two losses to Andrew Lewis, the former high school in Salem that is now their middle school, in 1974 and 1975 under former Head Coach Dave Brown.

 

Pulaski County has been stopped by the Spartans in all of their past 12 meetings. The last time the Cougars earned a win over Salem was a shocking 21-13 win in 2010 under new Head Coach Todd Jones. The Cougars were sanctioned by the Virginia High School League that season for what was deemed “illegal out of season practices.” The following season, the VHSL changed all sports rules concerning out of season practice, making what the Cougars were accused of completely legal.

 

The rivalry between Pulaski County and Salem has been known to bring the best out of each team at times. When the Cougars won their 6A State Championship in 1992, they did that with a 22-29 loss to the Spartans. The Cougars have returned that favor a time or two in the past as well.

 

The Spartans come into the midseason matchup with a record of three wins and one loss. That one loss came at the hands of Martinsburg, West Virginia, by a final score of 21-35. The Spartans have claimed victories over William Fleming (46-20), Northside (42-0) and Christiansburg (24-7).

 

The Spartans are coached by Head Coach Don Holter, who is in his third season as the leader of the Salem program and holds an overall record of 25-3. His initial season ended with a record of 12-2, falling to Tuscarora in the playoffs. In his second season, which was the spring COVID-19 season, the Spartans went 10-0 and won the Group 4A State Championship.

 

“Salem is Salem and they do what they do,” Cougar Head Coach Mark Dixon said. “They run an effective offense that they are very familiar with and they execute it well. They play tough defensively and tackle well. They have solid special teams. They don’t make a lot of mistakes and they don’t shoot themselves in the foot very often. They have the type of program that everyone wants to have.”

 

As for the Cougars, Coach Dixon knows the task in from of his team has been made tougher recently. Injuries have hit in spots that are tough to replace on the fly. Junior quarterback Cam Cooper went down with a broken collar bone in the final minutes of the Cave Spring game and most likely won’t be back this season. Defensive end and offensive lineman Evan Alger is still working to make his way back after an injury. Freshman center Nolan Dalton earned the starting job with the varsity squad, but will now miss the remainder of the season due to a knee injury that will require surgery. The list goes on.

 

“We put the next man in line up and we move forward,” Dixon said. “It’s the only choice we have. All of our kids have worked hard and to do anything less would be unfair to them and our team. In the end, putting this many young players in a starting position will be an investment in our future. This experience will be a big help to those younger players who will be our team leaders in the upcoming years.”

 

Last week, one of those young players who was put in the spotlight was sophomore quarterback Chris Gallimore. It was his first varsity start at that position and while it was clear that he was nervous at the start of the game, he improved and gained some confidence later in the game. He finished the game, a tough 20-28 loss for the Cougars, completing 10 of 24 pass attempts for 106 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Unfortunately, he was forced to run for his life many times as the Titan defense broke through the line, including on the last offensive play for the Cougars.

 

The Cougars will need to execute much better on the offensive line and defensively if they want to be successful against Salem Friday night. In his post-game interview last week, Dixon mentioned his frustration with both of those groups. He also, however, put much of the blame on himself.

 

“I thought we had a game plan that was going to be good enough and I was wrong,” Dixon said. “I need to do a better job of putting our players in a position to make plays. We’re going to do everything we can to do that this week. Our effort was great, we just didn’t execute to standard in some areas and we’re still way too young to do that and win. We all have to do our jobs. We can’t arm tackle. We can’t have penalties. We can’t block wrong or run the wrong plays. We’ve got some great kids, we just need to speed up the learning curve and do the work the right way.”

 

Kickoff Friday is set for 7 p.m. at Kenneth J. Dobson Stadium. Those who can’t make it can listen in on 107.1 FM WPSK as Rick Watson and Shay Dunnigan bring the action. The pregame show will begin at 6:30 p.m.

 

Callahan to be officially recognized

Before the game starts, a ceremony will take place to recognize and honor the memory of Dan Callahan, who passed away Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Callahan was known by most as “Dan the Man” and the longtime “Voice of the Cougars” either in print or on the radio.

 

The press box at Kenneth J. Dobson Stadium/Joel Hicks Field has now been named in honor of Dan Callahan, a very fitting and deserved honor. Friday night the Cougars will make it official with a ceremony that will include members of his family.

 

The future of Cougar Football is bright

Over the weekend, a question was asked on a sports page about what the future looked like for some of the area teams. I took a look at our current squad and what we have in the pipeline and the following paragraphs were my reply.

 

Pulaski County is still struggling through some growing pains. This team was relatively young to begin with, but they’ve gotten younger as the season has moved forward with sophomores and even a freshman or two making some noise on the depth chart.

 

The seniors we have are fewer in number than normal with only eight on the team, but they are doing their best to make an impact. John Lyman, Keyontae Kennedy, JJ Gulley, Caleb Yelton, DeMarcus Hayden, Felipe Aguilar, Jack Johnson and Tyler Sutherland are all fine young men. Obviously Lyman, Gulley and Kennedy are incredible to watch.

 

Our junior class is solid and will lead this program to a good place next season. Trevor Burton, Cam Cooper (if he heals right), Diego Turner, Alan Fernandez, Braylon Foster, Nathan Pratt, Alex Hanks, Zach Huff, Tre Hayden, Sean Wines, Trevor Wright and a healthy Evan Alger will shine.

 

Our sophomores are the ones who have me the most excited right now. Normally seeing a sophomore on the field means trouble. These guys have done a good job of handling the pressure and learning on the go. Tyler Underwood, Zack Parker, Trey Landreth, Zach Gallimore, Nicholas Woolwine, Austin McNeil, Wyatt Fryar, Duncan Umberger, Austin Mallott, Chris Gallimore, Brett Jones and Jack Allen are going to get much better in the coming seasons. Some of them are either starting or seeing significant playing time on varsity.

 

Several of the JV players have also shown great potential. Freshman quarterback Johnny Anderson has been a consistent performer on that JV team, along with freshmen Trevor Gallimore, Chase Lawrence,  Aiden Moore and of course Nolan Dalton, who was moved up to varsity quickly. Dalton will now take time to have his knee repaired and to heal, but others have also shown plenty of potential.

 

Our middle school team also has several players who have the potential to be real standouts. Quarterback Bryant Nottingham will kickoff, punt, placekick and either hand off, throw or run the ball on the varsity level very quickly. A crew of long and fast wide outs and running backs will be there to give him targets. Cole Boone (younger brother of Grace Boone) and a young man by the name of Silas Sweet (first real year of football, very fast and learning quickly) are exciting to watch along with power runner Kaden Hatch, among other potential big time players. Savion Thompson (write that name down and remember it) will be a monster on the defensive line along with several of his teammates like Blake Ratcliff and James Boyd.

 

The biggest problem for Pulaski County right now is consistency. Our line needs to perform better. Without using it as an excuse, that line has been different almost every week due to injuries. Those keep mounting up on us.

 

As of today, our starting quarterback is out (broken collar bone) and a sophomore (Chris Gallimore) had his first varsity start Friday at quarterback against Hidden Valley. A freshman (Nolan Dalton) won the starting center job and was doing an excellent job, but he’s out for the foreseeable future with a knee injury now. Starting tackle and defensive end (Evan Alger) is out and it’s not clear when he’ll be able to return. Several others are out with injuries now as well.

 

Coach Dixon is teaching them the right things and they are absorbing it, but it’s going to be a process. Even with a new starter at quarterback and a new center and all of the others out, the Cougars still put up a good fight against one of the better Hidden Valley teams I’ve seen in a while. The James Wood game should have been a Cougar win and would have been if not for an extremely bad penalty administration at the end of the game. That should have been Cougar ball, take a knee twice, game over. A first sideline warning is supposed to be just that, a warning and not a 15-yard penalty.

 

We’ll take our lumps this season, but what you won’t see is our kids giving up. The young players out there now will be back and they’ll be bigger, stronger, faster and smarter. The weight room is becoming the house of pain again. Coach Dixon is getting the players at a younger age. If you’re going to beat Pulaski County, I suggest you do everything you can to do that this season. With that said, it still won’t be a cake walk. We’re going to continue to improve as the season moves along and these guys have a ton of fight in them.

 

Looking at the River Ridge District

Salem

Salem is Salem. After their season opening loss to Martinsburg, WV, they have won three in a row, including a win over a very much improved Christiansburg team. They’ll get better as the season moves along as usual. They haven’t changed much of anything since opening the school and I don’t expect they will. They execute and that’s what matters. They’ll make their normal run in the playoffs. Anything less than a state title is considered a bad season.

 

Cave Spring

Cave Spring is going to get better, especially over the next two seasons. Don’t take them for granted. As they learn their new system, things will improve for the Knights. Their new coach is putting in a very familiar system that has proven results for other programs.

 

Hidden Valley

Hidden Valley is pretty good this season, but I can see them falling to at least one or two teams if they slip up even a little bit. The teams they will have the toughest time with will be Salem, PH and Christiansburg. With all of the injuries Pulaski County had Friday night, they should have won that game in a much more convincing fashion. With that said, I see them finishing with at least one loss, possibly two, and making a nice run in the playoffs.

 

Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry is sitting at 4-1 with their only loss coming in the season opener to Brookville. Tough to say if they’re as good as some of their past teams because of who’ve they’ve beaten so far, but they always have athletes and play tough. Their upcoming games to round out the season will tell how good they actually are.

 

Blacksburg

Blacksburg is 0-4 and struggling again this season. Losses to Giles and Grundy were particularly telling. They may be able to put some consistency together by the end of the season, but from what I see their best chance at a bit win might be against Cave Spring in the season finale. Anything can happen though.

 

Christiansburg

Christiansburg is likely one of the most improved teams in the district this season. They play hard and they’ve won the games they were supposed to. They destroyed Radford, something I didn’t expect to see happen. The Bobcats may not be 4D, but they usually hold their own. A 63-0 win over them was much more than I expected from the Blue Demons. From talking to some of their kids on the sidelines this year at other games, they are excited and are buying in to what Coach is selling.

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